It’s been a good week for analyses of how gender is portrayed in games, with critics looking closely at stories with female protagonists as well as critiquing toxic masculinity. It’s also been a remarkable week for discussions that don’t often appear, such as how to study games history and what we can do with marketing materials.
In-depth looks at how games are marketed don’t exactly appear every week. This week I’m featuring two: one is a series of three articles that I missed when it first came out, and one is a nuanced account of some beliefs about realism.
- Wicked Games, Part 3: Caution — Contents May Be Hot… and Hidden | Flow
This came out over a year ago, but I don’t think we featured it back then. Matthew Payne’s series of articles on controversies in games marketing should be a useful reference for years to come.
- Marketing Authenticity: Rockstar Games and the Use of Cinema in Video Game Promotion | Kinephanos
Esther Wright explores the paradoxical relationship between the idea of graphic realism and AAA games’ deliberate similarities with cinema – rather than simply calling out the contradiction between “like real life” and “like a film”, she looks more closely at what it means for these to be taken as the same thing.
“What is marketed is player experience within a world that is familiar, can be supported as authentic by players’ access to/of cinema, while also retaining its appeal to “Max fans” already acquainted with the franchise’s own history, and Rockstar as a brand that promises cinematic action.”
Trapped by systems
Three analyses of narrative-driven games dig into the strengths of the form, and how stories that are designed to be excavated by players can handle ambiguity.
- How do you get bookworms into games? | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
Matt Suckley explores the ambivalent cultural position of text-heavy games such as twines and visual novels.
- “Not Like Other Girls” and Other Lies: Magical Diary’s Exploration of Romance Writing
Vrai Kaiser praises a recent dating sim for challenging the problematic tropes common to the genre, respecting the desires that drive these fantasies while pushing characters to grapple with their own moral position in the story.
- How ‘LA Noire’ Rewards You For Being a Bad Cop – Waypoint
Oscar Taylor-Kent highlights some unsatisfying missions in LA Noire and praises them for constructing an unfair, oppressive system in which the player might not feel happy to succeed.
“As a player, you feel more trapped by those systems than Phelps. Even the few times he does voice his concerns, he backs down quickly, disallowing you to prod further.”
Alternatives to the strong men
Writing on gender and games this week touches on the empowerment of women and the importance of valuing vulnerability in men.
- ‘Assassin’s Creed Origins’ Replaces Revenge With Justice – Waypoint
Cameron Kunzelman identifies narrative and game design choices that emphasize one female character’s agency and autonomy.
- dicks dicks dicks: Hardness and Flaccidity in (Virtual) Masculinity Amanda Phillips / Georgetown University – Flow
Amanda Phillips examines the symbolic significance of soft willies, with reference to Genital Jousting and Tearoom among other recent subversive indie games and examples of discourse around game design.
“By cultivating rather than ridiculing or avoiding flaccid masculinities, from the queer packy to the homoerotic digital jouster, we can find an alternative to the strong men and hard bodies that compose our current nightmare of toxic masculinities.”
The New Colossus
The latest Wolfenstein game continues to generate a lot of discourse; this week, there’s been more focus on masculinity and the portrayal of the protagonist.
- Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (Spoilers) – YouTube (video: auto-captions)
Chris Franklin highlights the critique and healing of fragile masculinity in what he argues is a character-driven story about its protagonist.
- The Pain is in the Remembering | Unwinnable
James McMaster sees B.J. as a person experiencing that particularly acute despair of not being able to imagine a future and having nothing left from one’s past.
- The Heart of Wolfenstein 2 is a Voice | Unwinnable
David Shimomura highlights BJ’s ambivalence as something that sets him apart from other action heroes.
“While most shooters trade on “certainty” The New Colossus gives us a hero who is uncertain. B.J. hardly knows how to be himself, preferring to wear the mask of a singularly motivated killer of Nazis. He’s a man who enters a destroyed city and spends a moment eulogizing the innocent dead before embarking on a quest to kill those who are not so innocent.”
Our existence is not a mistake
In writing on emotional well-being and games, two pieces look at portrayals of pain and survival in a hostile world.
- Everything is Going to Be OK is about the circus performance of being all right | PC Gamer
Jay Allen argues that Nathalie Lawhead’s interactive zine puts players right at the heart of the contradictory actions we take when it comes to other people’s pain and their art.
- B | Life is Strange replay journal: 1/?
For Brenna Hillier, the fate of the queer girls at the center of the Life is Strange story is something she wants to vicariously invest hope into, amid a worsening political situation in the US that makes queer lives ever more vulnerable.
“If the universe has sprung a gear over the continued existence of one young queer woman, then the universe is broken and it can stay broken. I will run and I will fight until it sorts it shit out or it takes me out itself. No acceptance. Our existence is not a mistake. We are not mistakes.“
Call of Duty: WWII
The latest Call of Duty game has, unsurprisingly, sparked the interest of historians.
- Watching History Fade Away in ‘Call of Duty: WWII’ – Waypoint
Rob Zacny argues that the positioning of soldiers as ambitious heroes does a disservice to the majority of people who served in the second world war.
- “Call of Duty: WWII Unravels the Meaning of History,” by Reid McCarter – Bullet Points Monthly
Reid McCarter explores the perverse feeling of fetishizing combat in our memory of the Second World War
“The nuclear bombings that ended World War II are seen, by many artists and theorists, as the beginning of the end for any claim to a rational future for humanity. But, in a strange way, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are protected in memory in a way that the comparatively “low-stakes” slaughter preceding them is not.”
History also comes up in writing on how best to do games criticism this week, alongside a study of design strategies.
- Gamasutra:Josh’s Blog –
Josh Bycer breaks down different types of fail state by how punishing they feel.
- Documentation, Periodization, Regionalization, and Marginalization – First Person Scholar
Dominic Arsenault critiques consumerist and business-focused histories of games, and offers four challenges to historians aiming to study the industry.
“It’s time we document our personal histories as a part of video game historiography, so that future game historians may have access to the informal play practices and circulations of games outside the business and market logics.”
- Critical Distance Confab – Red Angel | Critical Distance
Eric Swain brought us a new podcast minisode this week
- The Winter Wonderland Game Storybundle is here… | Simon Carless
There’s a storybundle on that may interest readers here, with books on D&D, Final Fantasy V, and retro game translation.
- Politically meaningful games under neoliberalism | Memory Insufficient
I published a piece by Lana Polansky on the role of cultural criticism in our current political moment.
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Have you read, seen, heard or otherwise experienced something new that made you think about games differently? Send it in!